The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy – Classic Russian Literature – A Post a Day in May

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1886, roughly thirty years after War and Peace and twenty years after Anna Karenina.

I have read this before but felt it was time to reread it. I didn’t realize when starting it, what an excellent companion piece to Flaubert’s A Simple Heart this is. Both novellas tell the story of a life. One the story of a simple, uneducated woman, the other the story of a highly educated, successful man. Both stories are tragic.

The Death of Ivan Ilych starts with the discussion of a few lawyers, one of which just read their colleague, Ivan Ilych, has died. This intro chapter sets the tone. The reaction of the men tells us everything about them, their way of life, and Ivan Ilych’s life. Not one of them is saddened. They are only upset because it briefly reminds them of death. They soon console themselves though.

The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died, and they hadn’t.

Only one of the men feels he should pay the widow a visit. Seeing the dead man makes him feel uncomfortable. He’s glad when he can escape again and go back to his life, his “friends” and playing bridge, a game Ivan Ilych had enjoyed and been very good at.

After this intro chapter follows the story of Ilych’s life. This is how it begins:

Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.

This is so short and cruel and tells us in one sentence everything that we need to know about Ivan Ilych. It condenses what we will read in the next chapters in more detail.

Ivan Ilych was a successful lawyer. He made a stunning career, even though he wasn’t always happy with the developments, especially not after he got married. What at first looked like a good idea, settling down with someone who had a bit of money and was nice to look at, soon proved to have been a mistake. She was jealous and never happy with what they had, always pushing him to make more and more money. He did so, not only for her and domestic peace, but because he, too, measured success in terms of financial and professional success. And he also liked power.

In his work itself, especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality.

After living in provincial towns for many years, he finally gets offered a very good position in St Petersburg. He buys a house and furnishes it the way he always wanted. In his eyes it is perfection. But the author tells us otherwise.

In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes — all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.

Ivan Ilych, who has never done any manual thing in his life, enjoys decorating his new home but then something happens. He has a minor accident and feels some pain in his side.

Soon after this, he notices that the pain won’t go and that he has other symptoms. He knows he’s seriously ill, even fears he might die.

Over the next months, Ivan Ilych deteriorates more and more, is misdiagnosed and misunderstood and dies a lonely painful death.

Ilych’s illness and death are slow and agonizing and give him time to think about his life. He realizes that something had been missing, that he had measured success in the wrong way.

‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.

The tragedy is that the doctors who are incapable of empathy, are just like he was with the criminals— pompous and condescending. His entire world, he discovers is full of falsehood.

What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and that he only needs keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is an upsetting story. It’s dreadful to see how much he suffers and how nobody cares. I think one can also feel that Tolstoy didn’t like his character and that might be the biggest difference to Flaubert’s story. Flaubert didn’t judge Felicité. He felt compassion. Tolstoy doesnt feel compassion for Ilych as he seems to stand for everything Tolstoy abhors – bureaucracy, nepotism and arrivistes.

As I mentioned before, I read this twice and it feels like I’ve been reading two different stories just because my own life has changed so much. The first time, I’ve read it right after my dad’s death. This time around the sections on illness got to me more because the doctor’s reminded me so much of some of the doctor’s I’ve seen in the last couple of months. They just didn’t listen and had their idea about why I was in pain but very clearly they were wrong.

A lot has been speculated about Ivan Ilych’s illness. It’s never said what he has and might not be important. There are also many theories about the meaning of this story. To me, it is the story of a man who wanted only pleasant things in life, who hated change, and let himself drift until he hit a major obstacle, which he was incapable of overcoming. In that, and verything else, he is indeed mediocre.

23 thoughts on “The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy – Classic Russian Literature – A Post a Day in May

  1. I’ve read this twice and it *is* gruelling. I’m afraid I have very little faith in many of the doctors I’ve seen – particularly when it comes to women’s issues. It seems to be a bit of a lottery as to who you get to see.

    • Gruelling is the right word.
      I’ve Had good and bad doctors. But those I saw recently were rubbish. They are GPs. My old one who was fantastic is retired. I found good ones among those whose approach is more holistic, including homeopathy and Chinese medicine. It really is a lottery.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! I read this years back when I wasn’t a mature reader. I need to read it again. I loved the passages you shared. It is sad that when follows all the social rules and does all the right things, things still don’t work out. I agree with you on doctors. It is a total lottery. I find most times that the diagnosis is incorrect or vague and the doctor is not able to fix the problem. I don’t know why. I used to watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and doctors were cool in it and fixed most problems 😁 I don’t know why real-world doctors are not like that.

    • Thank you, Vishy. It’s not exactly a story for younger readers, I’d say.
      Terrible – he does everything that is expected of him but probably never knew what he really wanted for himself. There wasn’t a lot of freedom among people of his class.
      I have an excellent homeopath, he’s also a medical doctor, who is good at diagnosis too but can’t help much with back pain. And so I’ve been playing the lottery. They really were mostly rubbish.

      • I want to read this book again and see how I respond to it. I think I’ll be able to understand it better.

        Glad to know that your doctor who is wonderful. I hope he is able to help you better. Take care.

  3. I read this so long ago I remember next to nothing about it, though your post stirred some memories of it. One of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s adaptations of western literary texts, Ikuru, is loosely based on this novella – though I’ve never succeeded in tracking it down.

    • It is very well done. I’d like to know what you think of it.
      I found a very good homeopath but am still looking for a new GP. It’s not only annoying but also costly to “shop” for a new doctor.

  4. I’m not sure I could read this right now. It’s probably too torturous for my current frame of mind in these uncertain lockdown times…

    Simon is right about Ikuru being inspired in part by this novella. It’s a film that’s been recommended to me before, by Cathy at 746 Books – but also like Simon, I’ve yet to chase it down.

    • It bothered me much more when I read it the first time around. It is affecting, no matter what’s going on as it touches of fears we all might have at some time.
      I haven’t looked for the film yet but it would be interesting.

  5. I’ve heard passages of this on the radio, and he was already bedridden and about to die.

    It sounded awfully sad and I’m not sure I can stomach it.

    PS: it was on France Culture and the person who was reading was excellent. It’s probably available on their website.

  6. This is one of the great works of fiction. The emotion that Tolstoy brings forth, especially as Ilych nears death, is what makes it so compelling. I hope someday to be able to write with this kind of emotion. The book was published in 1885 and has been translated from Russian, but if a writer used his style today the book would be panned. He breaks many of the rules of modern journalism, but it is the story that carries the work. I have read it several times and each time I learn something new.

    • It’s brilliant. I agree. And so moving. I find many classics break rules but that makes them special. So much if what us written nowadays seems to follow certain narrative rules and that makes for boring reading. I hope you will be able to write with as much emotion as he does.

  7. Pingback: Ljudmila Ulitskaya – The Funeral Party (1997) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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